Standard English vs American English: An Author’s Guide
I’m a British author, schooled in Standard English, so making the switch to write in American English for my novels and Canadian publisher was somewhat of an education. Whichever side of the Pacific you are based, if you need to make the switch to either American or British Standard English, there are a few key things to be aware of.
Below I share what I’ve learnt… or should I say learned. 😉
English standard version vs new American standard – what’s different?
I’ve discovered that there are a number of differences in grammar (gotten verses got, for example), and vocabulary (windshield versus windscreen). There are also differences in phrasing that don’t translate from one continent to the next easily (I once used the simile of people falling like skittles – the old-fashioned wooden version of ten pin bowling – and my editor was confused, thinking I meant the sweets, er, I mean candy). But the main difference for me as a writer is spelling.
(I cover all three of these areas - spelling, vocabulary and expression - below. I also end with some practical tips for writers that have helped me make the shift to a language not quite my own!)
In a nutshell, Oxford International English state that, “The main difference is that British English keeps the spelling of words it has absorbed from other languages, mainly French and German. Whilst American English spellings are based mostly on how the word sounds when it is spoken.”
So, what does that mean?
What is American Standard English and how is it different to the standard English spellings used within the UK?
I’ve tried to break down some of the main differences for you below and give you some examples.
British Spellings vs American Spellings
1. One of the most visible differences in spelling that us Brits. notice, is that English words that end in ‘our’ end in ‘or’ in American English.
2. Often words that end in ‘t’ in Standard English end in ‘ed’ in American English.
3. Verbs that tend to end with ‘ise’ in British English end with ‘ize’ in American English.
4. In Britain, we often double the ‘l’ in verbs ending in vowel L but Americans double them elsewhere. Confusing!
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5. British English words that are spelled ‘ae’ or ‘oe’ tend to be just spelled with an e in American English (there are exceptions).
6. Words that tend to end ‘re’ in Britain, tend to end ‘er’ in American English.
7. Some nouns that end with ‘ence’ in British English are spelled ‘ense' in American English.
8. British English ‘ogue’ become ‘og’ or ‘ogue in American English. This one caught me out!
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9. Some words with a ‘y’ become ‘I’ in American English.
The spelling difference that makes me jealous of my American friends is the word practice. For Americans, the verb and the noun are the same spelling- practice. British writers, however, have a life of angst about spelling the word wrong. For us practise is the verb and practice is the noun. When I write, this is one difference that certainly makes my proof-reading life easier!
Another difference, as mentioned above, is that Americans more often spell words how they sound compared to Brits. I still remember the national horror (I’m not kidding) when it was announced in the UK that it would now be acceptable to spell Sulphur like the Americans, Sulfur.
And I think this example says it all. To me British English spelling seems more stuffy and more complicated as it clings to the spellings inherited from different languages far more so than American English. (Is this a good time to point out that William Shakespeare spelt his name several different ways?)
Vocabulary: Do words in Standard English and American English mean the same?
The vocabulary difference is a little harder to tackle. I ordered a burger and chips in Canada for my son, and he was very disappointed when his burger came with what we call crisps. Likewise, if you asked a Brit if she had gas, you’d be met with a frosty reception at your rude question, until you explained you meant petrol.
I learnt about many of the word differences I know because my editor questioned my use of words I didn’t think twice about. Windscreen became windshield, hair bobble became hair tie and so on, but sometimes, even for the most open minded of us writers, the language barrier can be too high to broach. For example, I will never use the words ‘fanny pack’ in a story. Ever. This might be a simple, everyday object/phrase to the Americans, but to most of us Brits. F***y is a very naughty word!
You can find lists of vocabulary differences at the Oxford site above and at the British Council.
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Differences in Expression and Grammar: Standard English vs American English
There are several grammatical differences, but the main few I’ve noticed are:
1. Americans use ‘gotten’ as the past participle of ‘get’. In British English we use ‘got’, not gotten.
2. Collective nouns are singular in American English, where we tend to have them as a plural. Here’s an example from the British council: “For instance, in American English, collective nouns are considered singular (e.g., The band is playing). In contrast, collective nouns can be either singular or plural in British English, although the plural form is most often used (e.g., The band are playing).”
3. British English tends to be more on the formal side – 'shall' instead of 'will/should' and 'needn’t' instead of ‘don’t need to’. Although, we use the American versions as well.
4. Our use of 'at' and 'on' is different, too. British people use 'at' for time and place, Americans use 'on' as the preposition.
I also get pulled up by my editor for using ‘about’, as in ‘he placed his arm about her’. She prefers ‘around’ – but maybe that’s just me!
Practical Tips for Writers:
1. Turn your spell check onto 'English (United States)' on your computer.
2. Check your spell check setting periodically. Mine has a weird habit of changing back and forth on Windows 10. No idea why!
3. Keep a list of the common mistakes you tend to make so you can use your search tool to check if you’ve used them without thinking.
4. Use that same search tool to double check spellings. You might think you’ve got it covered by switching to American spelling in Word, but in my experience some English spellings are allowed to pass. I go through and check the word 'traveled' and t'ravelled', for example, as even with American spelling on, the English spelling isn’t highlighted as a mistake or auto corrected.
Finally,here are a few links to posts that might help you hone your writing craft:
Best Wishes & Happy Writing,